Saturday, 5 March 2016

Boom time for Clara Bow… The Wild Party (1929)

“…she was the outstanding flaming youth and she was flaming…”

One of the gems in the recently-published Silent WomenPioneers of Cinema is a 1977 interview conducted by Kevin Brownlow with Dorothy Arzner – just about the only female director for most of thirties and forties Hollywood.

Arzner started as an editor working on Blood and Sand amongst others before her irresistible talent propelled her to a position from which Paramount had to let her make her own films. In another chapter of the book, Francesca Stephens, describes how she brought an unique sensibility to the development of female characters – not just a subversion of the all-pervading male gaze but a presentation of believable and real personas.

A group of students yesterday
This could hardly be more apparent than in the opening scenes of The Wild Party as Clara Bow and her mates clown around in the dorm, relaxed and thoroughly modern. Clara Bow? Wasn’t she terrified of microphones and doomed to fail in the talkies? Well, no actually, this film was a success and she would carry on making films for a few years yet before her personal problems over took her.

Clara was a kinetic actress though and to enable her full range of expression Arzner devised the boom microphone, getting her sound man to lash the mic to a broom in order to allow both artists and camera to move more freely. So, rather than hover nervously within range of a static mic, Clara is free to run wild and gives a compelling and genuine performance…

Clara's tears
One of the most under-rated actresses of the era, Bow was an emoting wonder able to hover between tears and smiles all in one moment of unconscious flow and here Arzner was able to harness this all in a sound context. And the voice? Pretty good as it goes no trace of Brooklyn to my anglo-ears and clear diction that sounds more relaxed and natural than some of her fellow actors including from line-to-time co-star Fredric March.

In fairness Fred has less to work with in a film that focuses, remarkably, on women; he’s there as the token male interest in a story that is about female loyalty, betrayal and love. The women aren’t perfect but young, competitive, ambitious, scheming, daft and willful... just as you and I.

All dressed down and nowhere to go
Clara plays Stella Ames, the loudest and most liked gal in her dorm of the all-girl Winston College. She is, as has been said elsewhere, very like Clara Bow or at least the Clara we think we know: bubbly, flirty, sassy and never someone to let a good party get in the way of study.

Her best pal, Helen Owens (Shirley O'Hara), couldn’t be more different, chained to her desk studying hard and aiming high whilst the others gallivant. There’s a Babs (Adrienne Dore) – there had to be! – and a gaggle of wise-crackin’, nail-paintin’, gum-chewin’ pals who generally treat schooling as that dreary period of obligation sandwiched between the hangover and the hair of the dog: Mazie (Alice Adair), Thelma (Kay Bryant), Gwen (Marguerite Cramer) and more.

Beau Peep (Marceline Day) takes exception to the girls' cozzies
Balanced against this is the straight-laced Faith Morgan (a third-billed but underused Marceline Day) – something like the Head Girl who makes no secret of her disdain for the 24 hour party people. But then there’s the college creep, Eva Tutt (Joyce Compton) who’ll split on anyone if she thinks she’ll benefit.

Given the girl’s lifestyles, Eva will find plenty of tales to tell and she listens well to Stella’s story of accidentally climbing into the wrong bed bunk on the train returning from vacation. The bunk is already occupied by a handsome man and the two narrowly avoid reputational damage.

The female gaze: Marceline Day
However, there's a new anthropology teacher and Stella realises that her temporary bunk-mate is none other than Professor James 'Gil' Gilmore (Fredric March) – queue rom-com friction between attracted opposites.

Stella is easily convinced by Gil’s critique of her work and abilities that she’s better off sticking to the party life but an excursion to the wrong side of the tracks leads them closer. There’s a genuinely unpleasant sequence in which the girls are harassed by a group of toughs who proceed to kidnap Stella with who knows what intention. The other girls alert Gil who runs off after the car cutting across the country roads to intervene and rescue the distressed dame.

One the run with the Professor
The relieved couple soon fall into each other’s arms but back in class it’s business as usual and Stella resumes her partying ways… the film isn’t quite ready to succumb to narrative convention just yet.

The focus shifts back to the girls and the relationships between Stella and her best friend Helen. Helen is compromised after attending a party in which she spends hours alone on a beach with a man talking. Afterwards she vows to focus on her studies and achieve the top scholarship but all will be threatened by tell-tale Eva who’s out to well, just be mean to everyone as often as possible.

Stella gets a tough time in class
She also has Stella and Gil in her sights after spotting their late night re-union after he has been shot in the shoulder by the bad guys from the bar…

She has enough to blackmail her way to an easy pass and to get her enemies expelled… the only thing standing in her way is Stella’s sense of decency… she hasn’t got a chance.

OK, the story isn’t a million miles away from so many others of the period but what makes the film stand out is the focus on the women – the men are almost incidental and surely this is one of the few films that would pass the Bechdel test?

Clara and Shirley O'Hara after a conversation purely about academic attainment
Arzner brings out the best in Clara Bow making it hard to credit the struggles that were to follow. She seems every bit as powerful as in silence and that, given those tales of mic-fright says much about Arzner’s direction as well as her remarkable moment of invention.

Annoyingly, like so many of Clara’s films, The Wild Party isn’t available on DVD. There’s a decent copy at the Internet Archive (as Stella's Merits) indicating that it's public domain… why then doesn’t somebody clean it up and release a bit more of Clara to the World?

As Dorothy said to Kevin: “Clara Bow’s quality was like a gamin… she was full of animation and full of the projection of her thinking and emotion through the screen… a natural because… she understood the emotional content…”

Silent Women is available direct from Supernova Books. Every silent home should have one!

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